Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Phillips Brooks on Jesus' Effect on His Disciples

Phillips Brooks (1835-1893) was one of the great preachers and leaders of the Episcopal Church. He was the Bishop of the Diocese of Massachusetts. He wrote the classic Christmas carol, O Little Town of Bethlehem. He also attended seminary at my alma mater, Virginia Theological Seminary. Here is a portion of a sermon Brooks preached on Matthew 26:21-22 in which he reflects on how it is that Jesus’ disciples might each wonder if he was the one who would betray him. They asked, ‘Is it I?”

It must have been that their life with him had deepened the sense of the mystery of their lives. They had seen themselves, in intercourse with him, as capable of much more profound and variable spiritual experiences than they had thought possible before. And this possible life, this possible experience, had run in both directions up and down. They had recognized a before unknown capacity for holiness, and they had seen also a before unknown power of wickedness. Their sluggishness had been broken up, and they had seen that they were capable of divine things. Their self-satisfied pride had been broken up, and they had seen that they were capable of brutal things. Heaven and hell had opened above their heads and below their feet. They had not thought it incredible when Christ said, ‘I go to prepare a place for you, and I will come again and receive you to myself,’ now they did not think it incredible when he said, ‘One of you shall betray me.’ The life with Christ had melted the ice in which they had been frozen, and they felt it in them either to rise to the sky or to sink into the depths. That was and that always is Christ’s revelation of the possibilities of life.
(Philips Brooks: Selected Sermons, William Scarlett, ed., p. 151)

“Their sluggishness had been broken up, and they had seen that they were capable of divine things. Their self-satisfied pride had been broken up, and they had seen that they were capable of brutal things.” Perhaps that should be the goal of all our preaching and teaching, all our spiritual disciplines.

Monday, January 8, 2018

Top 10 Posts of 2017

Here are the ten posts on this blog that generated the most activity last year:

10. Centered on Jesus I: Introduction. Not Moderate
The beginning of a series of which two other posts made the top 10. I intend to continue this series as I find the time.

           
            Is God really like Jesus?

A conversation with my daughter that led to some reflections about the meaning of the Incarnation


            Christians are expected to believe a lot of preposterous stuff

“How can we go on singing “Joy to the world, the Savior reigns,” in view of the fact that the monsters continue to devour our children with undiminished ferocity?”

“When we give our allegiance is to something other than Jesus Christ – Conservatism, Progressivism, this or that political party, a nation, or anything else – we can find ourselves endorsing things that followers of Jesus ought not endorse and excusing behaviors followers of Jesus ought not excuse.”

“'Christian nationalist' is an oxymoron.”

This post seems to have struck a nerve. Not only was it the most read of my posts this year, it quickly became the most read post ever on this blog

Friday, January 5, 2018

The work of Christmas begins (continues)

Today is the 12th day of Christmas, which means it is the last day of our Christmas celebration this season. But, the work of Christmas continues. It is the work of Jesus. It is the work of his disciples. Here is a quote from Howard Thurman (1899-1981) who was an African-American author, philosopher, theologian, educator, and civil rights leader:

When the song of the angels is stilled,
when the star in the sky is gone,
when the kings and princes are home,
when the shepherds are back with their flocks,
the work of Christmas begins:
to find the lost,
to heal the broken,
to feed the hungry,
to release the prisoner,
to rebuild the nations,
to bring peace among the people,
to make music in the heart.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Recovering our true humanity

For the eleventh day of Christmas, more Dietrich Bonhoeffer:

And in the Incarnation the whole human race recovers the dignity of the image of God. Henceforth, any attack even on the least [person] is an attack on Christ, who took [the human form], and in his own Person restored the image of God in all that bears a human form. Through fellowship and communion with the incarnate Lord, we recover our true humanity, and at the same time we are delivered from that individualism which is the consequence of sin, and retrieve our solidarity with the whole human race. By being partakers of Christ incarnate, we are partakers in the whole humanity which he bore. We now know that we have been taken up and borne in the humanity of Jesus, and therefore that new nature we now enjoy means that we too must bear the sins and sorrows of others. The incarnate Lord makes his followers the brothers and sisters of all humankind.
(The Cost of Discipleship, Chapter 32)

The Incarnation is the ultimate reason why the service of God cannot be divorced from the service of [humanity].
(The Cost of Discipleship, Chapter 32)

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Where thrones shake, the mighty fall, the prominent perish

On the ninth day of Christmas, something from Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945):

For the great and powerful of this world, there are only two places in which their courage fails them, of which they are afraid deep down in their souls, from which they shy away. These are the manger and the cross of Jesus Christ. No powerful person dares to approach the manger, and this even includes King Herod. For this is where thrones shake, the mighty fall, the prominent perish, because God is with the lowly. Here the rich come to nothing, because God is with the poor and hungry, but the rich and satisfied he sends away empty. Before Mary, the maid, before the manger of Christ, before God in lowliness, the powerful come to naught; they have no right, no hope; they are judged.

Monday, January 1, 2018

As Rain Falls on the Earth


For the eighth day of Christmas, the Feast of the Holy Name, something from St. Hesychios (8th or 9th century) whose writing can be found in the Philokalia:

The more the rain falls on the earth, the softer it makes it; similarly, the holy name of Jesus gladdens the earth of our heart the more we call upon it.

If you are looking for a spiritual practice to adopt in 2018, I recommend the Jesus Prayer. Mindfully (or ‘watchfully’, as the writers in the Philokalia would say) repeating the phrase “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me” is an ancient Christian prayer discipline. The phrase can be lengthened: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.” It can be shortened: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy” or shorter still to the point of just repeating the Name, “Jesus.” Whatever the length, I have found it a helpful exercise to focus my attention on Jesus and his mercy as well as making my own heart and imagination more merciful. It has indeed, like rain, gladdened the dry earth of my heart.

For brief introductions to the Jesus Prayer see here, here, and here. A good readable book on the Jesus Payer is The Jesus Prayer: The Ancient Desert Prayer that Tunes the Heart to God by Frederica Mathewes-Green. 

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Jesus = Something that's Going on Eternally


This year, the 7th day of Christmas falls on the first Sunday of Christmas. The Gospel appointed for this Sunday is John 1:1-18. Here is a reflection on that passage by Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury:

It's a slightly strange way to start a Gospel you might think. We expect something a bit more like the beginning of the other Gospels: the story of Jesus's birth perhaps or his ancestry, or the story of Jesus's arrival on the public scene.
 
But at the beginning of St John's Gospel what St John does is to frame his whole story against an eternal background. And what he's saying there is this: as you read this Gospel, as you read the stories about what Jesus does, be aware that whatever he does in the stories you're about to read is something that's going on eternally, not just something that happens to be going on in Palestine at a particular date.
 
So when Jesus brings an overflow of joy at a wedding, when Jesus reaches out to a foreign woman to speak words of forgiveness and reconciliation to her, when Jesus opens the eyes of a blind man or raises the dead, all of this is part of something that is going on forever. The welcome of God, the joy of God, the light of God, the life of God  all of this is eternal. What Jesus is showing on Earth is somehow mysteriously part of what is always true about God.

And that's why it's central to this beginning of John's Gospel – that he says the light shines in the darkness and the darkness doesn't swallow it up. How could the darkness swallow it up? If these works of welcome and forgiveness, of light and life and joy, are always going on, then actually nothing can ever make a difference to them.
 
And that's why at the climax of this wonderful passage, St John says, the Word of God, the outpouring of God's life, actually became flesh and blood. And we saw it  we saw in this human life the eternal truth about God. We saw an eternal love, an eternal relationship; we saw an eternal joy and a light and a life.

So as we read these stories we know that nothing at all can make a difference to the truth, the reality, they bring into the world. This is indeed the truth; this is where life is to be found. And this explains why at the end of St John's Gospel, he famously says that if we tried to spell out all that this means, there would be no end of the books that could be written.